Few authors of such historical importance have so high a proportion of their writings forgotten or neglected as Walter Pater. I used to think his essays on ancient sculpture the least studied portion of his work, but a glance at the bibliographies to Volumes III and IV of the new Collected Works suggests other candidates. Their editors have found little to cite on Pater’s short fiction, and there seems to be no secondary literature to speak of on his unfinished experimental novel Gaston de Latour. Alex Wong’s intelligent selection for Carcanet includes the obligatory essays on Leonardo (1869), Botticelli (1870) and Giorgione (1877), as well as the notorious conclusion to The Renaissance (1873), but those more familiar texts make up well under a third of a volume that moves from archaic sculpture and pre-Socratic philosophy to Pascal, Rossetti and Mérimée, and includes some distinctly obscure pieces, such as an essay on Thomas Browne which is a small-scale masterpiece.
The conventional image of Pater as a narrow aesthete or fastidious connoisseur is contradicted by these volumes. What emerges instead is a man of formidable learning and intellectual scope, a polyglot in modern as well as ancient languages, and a relentless critic of disciplinary boundaries. It’s true he took his subjects from the past, often the ancient past, but he was interested in those aspects that had special interest, or even fashionability, in his lifetime – new discoveries or dramatic revisions to previous orthodoxies. He may have been the first to place the pre-Socratics, whose work was just being edited, in a history of philosophy that also included Darwin and Hegel. He combined the latest discoveries of ‘scientific’ archaeology with Winckelmann’s repertoire of celebrated ancient sculptures. His account of the French Renaissance benefited from the pioneering work of his friend Emilia Pattison, whose Renaissance of Art in France – an example of the new discipline of art history – was published in 1879.
This new Pater, cosmopolitan and engaged, is much more to our taste than the caricatural aesthete. But it would be just to acknowledge that Pater believed in the fine discriminations of the aesthete as well as the capacious interests of the intellectual: he coined the term ‘aesthetic critic’. His work was something of an obsession among first-generation modernists, for whom Marius the Epicurean (1885) was a cult novel, although obsession could also manifest as distaste, as for example in Pound’s withering attack of 1914 on ‘Paterine sentimentalesque Hellenism’, or ‘The Place of Pater’, Eliot’s more insidiously damning essay of 1930. His openness to relativist thinking, so repugnant to Eliot, came to fascinate the postmodernist generation, and led to important essays by Harold Bloom and J. Hillis Miller. Wolfgang Iser’s study of Pater was crucial to the genesis of reception theory at the University of Konstanz in the 1960s.
Pater reportedly told his students that ‘the great thing is to read authors whole; read Plato whole; read Kant whole; read Mill whole.’ Yet it has scarcely been possible to read Pater himself whole. The ten-volume Library Edition, first published in 1910 by Pater’s original publisher, Macmillan, had no critical apparatus. Oxford, where Pater spent virtually his entire career, might have been expected to fill the scholarly gap, but an attempt to bring out a critical edition foundered some time in the 1990s. Rumour attributes the failure to disagreements among the editors, but it might reflect the sheer difficulty of annotating any Paterian text. The general editors of the new Oxford edition, Lesley Higgins and David Latham, have embarked on the project with bravura: ‘The ten volumes of The Collected Works of Walter Pater are commissioned to serve scholars as the definitive edition for at least as long as the unscholarly 1910 Library Edition has served.’ Volumes III and IV, the first to appear, are both reworked versions of earlier editions by their respective editors, Lene Østermark-Johansen and Gerald Monsman, and there are considerable challenges ahead.
First among these is the variety of references in Pater’s work. As Østermark-Johansen puts it in her acknowledgments to Volume III, ‘hopefully my attempts to turn myself into many different types of readers have resulted in a broad range of commentary.’ Østermark-Johansen is one of few scholars today who can command anything like the range of languages that was usual in Pater’s lifetime. She was educated in Denmark; the UK’s monoglot education will produce fewer and fewer scholars capable of this kind of work. Wong’s succinct notes cover an impressive range and his selection for Carcanet is an excellent starting point for the first-time reader. But comprehensive annotation is a task of a different order.
There is too much previous scholarship on The Renaissance to make life easy for the annotator (Donald Hill’s 1980 edition of The Renaissance sets a very high standard), while there is little or none on the rest of Pater’s work, with the possible exception of Marius the Epicurean (edited several times, although lightly, for wide-circulation paperbacks). The more fundamental problem, however, is that the range of his allusion is beyond the competence of any single scholar. Classicists and modernists are no longer the same people. Anyone who can cope with Pater’s allusions to Pindar and Apuleius is unlikely to spot the references, often disguised, to Baudelaire, Schiller and Newman – or vice versa. Who is to say which range of reference is the more important, in any particular case?
Take, for example, this sentence from ‘The Genius of Plato’, included in Wong’s collection: ‘Now Plato is one for whom the visible world thus “really exists” because he is by nature and before all things, from first to last, unalterably a lover.’ This statement is in outright opposition to – even rebellion from – any simplistic view of Plato as an abstract thinker or austere moralist. The references reinforce the point: the quotation, unattributed, comes from a passage in the Goncourt Journals on Théophile Gautier, a notorious sensualist. A few sentences later Pater widens the allusion: ‘For [Plato], as for Dante, in the impassioned glow of his conceptions, the material and the spiritual are blent and fused together.’ The words here are identical to those used by Pater in an earlier essay on Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A superficial reading might note the schoolboy glee at finding the headiest modern sensuality (Gautier or Rossetti) in works of great venerability (Plato and Dante). But Pater’s point is both more precise and more strictly philosophical: it is visible beauty, the kind that inspires erotic love, which provides the direct route to the idea of Beauty, which is of highest value in Plato’s philosophy.
The editor of Pater must also deal with an equally diverse range of art-historical reference. Neither Østermark-Johansen nor Gerald Monsman (the editor of Volume IV, revising his pioneering reconstruction of Gaston, first published in 1995) falls victim to a prevalent misconception among the previous generation of Pater scholars, that he had no interest in modern art. Reading Gaston, I was reminded repeatedly of paintings by Lawrence Alma-Tadema and John William Waterhouse. Pater’s interest in these works might help us to understand their appeal not only to his contemporaries, but to audiences today. Queen Margaret of Navarre is first mentioned in the novel with a Greek quotation that links her to Homer’s Circe and to Waterhouse’s Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses (1891), but her physical appearance, a page or two later, is that of Jane Morris as painted by Rossetti (or as described by Henry James): ‘carnal, as the massive white throat testifies … there was almost oriental blue richness, blackness, in the king-fisher wings or waves of hair which overshadowed ce beau visage blanc so abundantly.’
One practical solution might be for each volume to have a team of scholars. Another might be an online edition. But perhaps it is better for each of us to make our own annotations, to discover the allusions that chime with our own interests. The quality Pater admires in Measure for Measure is present too in his own work: it is the ‘sort of writing which is sometimes described as suggestive, and which by the help of certain subtly calculated hints only, brings into distinct shape the reader’s own half-developed imaginings’.
Pater was committed to a dialectical form of thinking, a commitment as deeply held as Marx’s and from the same source in the philosophy of Hegel, though in Pater’s case it was also a lifelong project to trace it back to the dialogues of Plato. No quotation from Pater is complete without its dialectical counterpart. In the penultimate paragraph of ‘Style’, an essay of 1888, for example, Pater elaborates on his earlier idea that all art ‘constantly aspires towards the condition of music’:
If music be the ideal of all art whatever, precisely because in music it is impossible to distinguish the form from the substance or matter, the subject from the expression, then, literature, by finding its specific excellence in the absolute correspondence of the term to its import, will be but fulfilling the condition of all artistic quality in things everywhere, of all good art.
This is not quite formalism, but it could be quoted to justify the conventional view of Pater as a belletrist. That interpretation depends, however, on suppressing the dialectical counterpart in the next paragraph:
Good art, but not necessarily great art … It is on the quality of the matter it informs or controls, its compass, its variety, its alliance to great ends, or the depth of the note of revolt, or the largeness of hope in it, that the greatness of literary art depends, as The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Les Misérables, the English Bible, are great art.
That is a more complex idea and requires extensive unpacking to do it justice. Oscar Wilde’s more accessible texts sometimes present a diluted or simplified version of Pater’s elusive ideas, but he understood the importance of the dialectic – hence the dialogue form of ‘The Critic as Artist’ and other essays in Intentions, his volume of 1891 (the title acknowledges Pater’s Appreciations, which was published two years earlier).
Pater could be an excessively fastidious or finicky writer – one student recalled him saying that he never published anything unless he had rewritten it seven times. It is with something like physical pain that he notes the ‘uneven’ or ‘unequal’ quality of a writer or artist: Botticelli, Wordsworth, Thomas Browne, Measure for Measure (in explicit contrast to the ‘flawless execution’ of Romeo and Juliet). His own prose is often at its best when he is dealing with a writer or artist whose technique he thinks uneven, as though he is making reparation. Gaston, which didn’t go through this sevenfold revision process, is much more difficult reading than other texts by Pater; its fascination is like that of an unfinished painting, where the shapes and colours have been laid on the canvas but not yet blended into a coherent whole.
The result of Pater’s perfectionism is a relatively small body of work – ten slim volumes compared to the 39 massive tomes of John Ruskin, his main competitor as a Victorian critic. Each of his texts, moreover, answers Ruskin’s prolixity with concision. His critical approach is precisely and carefully theorised, from the preface to The Renaissance where he introduces the phrase ‘aesthetic critic’, to the advocacy of modern prose writing in ‘Style’, developed from a review of Flaubert’s literary practice into a manifesto opening for Appreciations:
Is it worth while, can we afford, to attend to just that, to just that figure or literary reference, just then? – Surplusage! he will dread that, as the runner on his muscles. For in truth all art does but consist in the removal of surplusage, from the last finish of the gem-engraver blowing away the last particle of invisible dust, back to the earliest divination of the finished work to be, lying somewhere, according to Michelangelo’s fancy, in the rough-hewn block of stone.
There is no formula for such writing, if we take Pater at his word; the allusions to Michelangelo, to gem-engraving and to running must be counted essential to the point made here, like the repetition of ‘just’ and ‘last’.
In this respect Pater’s literary fastidiousness is not mere belletrism. Rather it is a form of scholarly ethics: scholars should write as well as they think. Eliot claimed that Pater’s ‘art for art’s sake’ was in fact ‘a theory of ethics … concerned not with art but with life.’ Anglophone criticism still has difficulty finding a place for Pater, perhaps because a strong suspicion of the aesthetic persists: ‘beauty’ is not nearly so embarrassing to even the most radical French intellectual as it is to a British academic. Pater’s Collected Works still have a long, and difficult, journey to go, but they will at least allow us to read him whole. That will amount to an aesthetic education, and an opportunity to enjoy (dare I say it) the sheer beauty of his prose.